360 Kitaj lets it all hang out

A German art critic-editor and a German publisher have brought out one of the main ego documents of twentieth-century art in England and the US. Schwartz’s personal comments on and associations evoked by R.B. Kitaj’s outrageous Confessions of an old Jewish painter.

The American-British painter R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007) had a lower shame threshold than most of us. He was not ashamed to tell about his lifelong promiscuity, and to lavish loving praise on the prostitutes and lovers he liked the most, alongside the two wives to whom he says he was eternally devoted. He was not ashamed of quoting again and again the most flattering things that were ever published about him in print or uttered in conversation. He seized the crown of fame to proclaim himself the leading Jewish artist of all time and the equal of all but a few other artists of any denomination, the once-in-a-century American artist elected to the Royal Academy, after Benjamin West in the eighteenth century and John Singer Sargent in the nineteenth. Reviewers who criticized his exhibitions he unforgivingly insulted, castigated, belittled and accused of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. “Lord knows I’m not Manet [he exclaims hypocritically], but he and I share an overload of press hatred – weep, weep.” Criticize his art and you were not only a mental and moral midget adhering to the School of Resentment, you were also in for slings like: “fuck you and damn you to hell where the bad guys go.”

These quotations are from the posthumous 2017 publication of his autobiographical screed Confessions of an old Jewish painter. It is a precious document in many ways. Thanks to Kitaj’s brand of sensitivity, the reader can feel the vibes pulsing in the high intellectual circles of Oxford in the 1950s, on the London “Art Scheme” from the 1960s through the ‘90s, in Los Angeles in the zero years until Kitaj took his life, after years of suffering from Parkinson’s, in 2007. We get tastes of New York, Paris and Catalonia thrown in along the way. Nowhere, he likes to tell us, was he at home. He dubs himself a Diasporist (and claims to be the inventor of this not unfamiliar concept), the diaspora being not what Israelis call chutz la’aretz – anywhere beyond their 0.0043 percent of the earth’s surface – but anywhere at all, for an artist out of place everywhere. His home was his art, which perhaps is why Kitaj could not see criticism of his art as something other than an attack on himself. Another home was the friendship of other artists, mainly David Hockney, who wrote an appreciative foreword to Confessions of an old Jewish painter.

Why Jewish? Just posing that question to Kitaj would put you on his enemy list. Barely a page in his book does not refer to his Jewishness, often in a pugnacious way. No other Jewish artist, he tells us over and over, had the courage to come out for his ethnicity and the Jewishness of his art. This left the field open for him, and he claims it obstreperously. Take chapter 19

I Can Draw Better Than Any Jew In History
…. My drawing is broader, more experimental, more protean, more skilled, more imaginative, more self-consciously Jewish, more controversial, more hated, more provocative, more unsure. Go ahead and hate me – you will be in a large company… In the late seventies in Time magazine, Robert Hughes wrote: “Kitaj draws better than almost anyone else alive.”

The pretence that art is universal and autonomous (“paint as paint”) strikes Kitaj as a form of reprehensible assimilationism, a surrender of your own inherited essence to careerism and conformity. Over and against the animosity of critics to his “bookish” art, he posits:

I think that all good art is “intellectual.” … Cubism, Abstraction, Roger Fry, Surrealism, Mondrian, Dada, Duchamp, Greenberg, Shapiro, Concept Art, etc. – all these and their largely Jewish co-ordinates in Marx, Freud, Einstein, Warburg, Schönberg, Wittgenstein, Eisenstein, Kafka, Proust, Benjamin, Derrida, etc., etc. are, I think, profound intellectualism (pace Greenberg), if by that, one means using one’s “Kopf.”

If Kitaj shouts too loudly and claims too much, if he seems to want to be hated, it can be seen as the desperate reaction of a vulnerable man to an art world without which he could not exist, but whose guiding premises question his right to existence. There might be subtle ways to negotiate such conflicts, but Kitaj was not the man to look for them. Direct confrontation and demonizing your critics was all he was equipped for.

In the rare passages in which Kitaj was able to take a step back from his predicaments, he can be very disarming.

What I mean to say, what this whole book means to say, is that I feel very alone – as many painters one knows of must do. But in my peculiar life-in-art, I’ve been hugely and madly attracted to what my own Jewish self may be, is, yearns toward. I don’t know what a “real” Jew is, so I work with what I’ve got in my own version of Diaspora, hounded by those (Gentiles and Jews) who do not like my version of Diaspora. Of course, everyone knows in their heart that it is not too bad to stand alone.

This confession draws me closer to Kitaj and makes me ask myself how I deal with my own aloneness, my own Jewishness and Diaspora, my own self-regard and self-indulgence, to what extent I may be standing alone. The kinds of things he shouts out in answer I suppress or at most mumble to myself.

George Adoff, best man at my marriage to Loekie, 26 April 1968, at our wedding party in my mother’s back yard the following Sunday.
Ivan Schwebel, photo taken by me on my last visit to him, 20 February 2011, Jerusalem

Just as personally, his Confessions remind me of friends who resembled him more than I do. What I know about them helps me to understand him. I think of George Adoff (1932-1992) and Ivan Schwebel (1932-15 July 2011). Like Kitaj, also born in 1932, they too were underprivileged American Jewish Depression kids who served in the US army after World War II and went to university on the GI bill. For them as for Kitaj, this succession of life experiences led to a veneration of learning, culture, poetry and art so profound that little else meant all that much to them. Their late start and chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes led them to live impaired social lives of the spirit, which did not make for temperamental stability or easy relationships. It was not hard to get into a fight with them without meaning to. They were the kind of people who would keep you awake in endless intense conversations when you were longing to go to bed.

Ivan Schwebel, The artist and his lover
R.B. Kitaj, The man of the woods and the cat of the mountains, 1973. London, Tate Modern

Ivan Schwebel, Lovers
R.B.Kitaj, Los Angeles No. 26 (Nose Kiss), 2003

Schwebel and Kitaj both lived for forty years in countries where they felt like strangers. Schwebel actually managed to live a Diasporist life in Israel itself, on a magical hillside between Jerusalem and Ein Karem. (He never came close to mastering Hebrew; Kitaj was recognizable as a Yank whenever he opened his mouth.) As artists, they had much in common. They had no instinct for the categorical distinctions that can place an artist on a recognizable career track. They were equally unembarrassed about incorporating undisguised texts, photo images, intellectual heroes and autobiography, especially erotic autobiography, into their decidedly unironic work. This is exactly the kind of thing that bugs critics straining to keep up with a succession of modernist and post-modernist modes and moods. Kitaj and Schwebel offered themselves as whipping boys for curators and critics, and they got whipped. A difference is that Kitaj made it big in the market nonetheless, and Schwebel didn’t.

An equally major resemblance to each other lies in their embrace of Judaism as the basis for their art. Schwebel did so thematically, by taking much of his subject matter from Israel and the Bible, especially the stories of King David. A favorite work of art in my house is a painted print Schwebel gave to Loekie and me on a visit to our house around 1980. It shows King David “dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14), not clothed in a linen ephod, as in Scripture, but in the nude, with his woman Michal, also nude. They are painted onto a large lithograph of one of the landmarks of Jewish Jerusalem, Kikar Tzion. (Apologies for the poor photograph; we keep the print behind glass.) For all his inner conflicts, Schwebel found access to biblical and latter-day Judaism in a form that Kitaj never allowed himself.

The manuscript of Confessions of an old Jewish painter came into being thus:

The artist wrote these memoirs [in 2001-2003], like all of his texts, each morning between six and ten o’clock in his favorite café, “Coffee Bean” in Westwood Village, with red ink on yellow, lined paper. Every day Tracy Bartley, … whom Kitaj had made his studio-assistant shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 1997, … typed these handwritten texts into the computer, which Kitaj then edited the following morning.

This is typically the kind of manuscript that if it survived at all would be treated with polite neglect by everyone except academics who would lose points if they did not read and refer to it. Indeed, it is held in the high-threshold Department of Special Collections in UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. That the manuscript has been published in the exemplary form now brought out is due mainly to the dedication of two men, the editor Eckhart J. Gillen and the publisher Lothar Schirmer, who is publishing the book in German translation as well as English. The effort, time and risk they invested in the project are too readily taken for granted by the reader. They thank each other in the colophon and epilogue, but I would like to thank them both here.

© 2018 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 1 January 2018.

ISBN 978-3-8296-081388

Responses for publication in the Reply box below, or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.

So will donations.

Your donations help defray the costs of the Schwartzlist and encourage Gary Schwartz to write more columns.

.Donate Button

Loekie and I enjoyed a painless transition to 2018. We hope for and wish you even more than that for the new year.

A New Years thought that often crosses my mind I published in 2005 and bears repeating. See Schwartzlist 225bis Charles Boxer’s New Years Day.

One commitment for the new year that I do not mind sharing is the opening lecture I am to give at Museum MORE in Gorssel, Overijssel on 3 February, for the exhibition De serene blik (The serene gaze).

Another is my work on an exhibition for the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, with the working title West Meets East in the Work of Rembrandt and His Dutch Contemporaries. The exhibition is scheduled for 2020, with a deadline that as of today sounds a lot shorter than it did yesterday.

1 thought on “360 Kitaj lets it all hang out”

  1. Hi, Gary,
    My own view is that consciousness per se is essentially a global outsider view of the workings of the mind, or of the cosmos, and that the Jews, by virtue of their a) global and b) persecuted outsider status throughout history instantiate and promulgate the consciousness of humanity to a large extent. When I refer to Jews, I very much include the penumbra of assimilated Jews who carry this consciousness into the mainstream culture. For example, it is notable that a large proportion of journalists and film directors are Jewish (such as yourself!) and play a huge role in disseminating the global consciousness (not excluding Christianity as an outgrowth of this dissemination through the conversion of the Roman Empire!). This consciousness is critically derived from the globality of the Jewish diaspora, which is not recent but has been ongoing for literally millennia as a result of their merchant trader proclivities in addition to the sequence of persecutions. Most people have a cluster of relatives in their local vicinity, but Jews tend to have relatives around the globe, and on every side of any conflict, giving them a particularly multilateral view of the competing interests, which is the essence of this globality.

    As to Kitaj, I always regarded him as an interesting draftsman and colorist, but far from the dominant influence that he seems to see himself as. He style is almost primitive and in a line of descent from Picasso to Tracy Emin (and I do mean ‘descent’!).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *